Kammatic and nibbanic Buddhism

Last winter my wife and I made a wonderful trip to Sri Lanka. Before I say anything about the trip’s philosophical implications, I just want to note that you should go there if you have the money and time to travel off-continent. This cradle of Theravāda Buddhism has spectacular beaches, deliciously spicy food, and no less than eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites in a country the size of West Virginia or Latvia. Sri Lanka’s friendly and cheerful people make a great deal of their living from tourism – and it saddens me to think that last year’s well-publicized bombings might devastate that living, especially since one’s actual risk of being a victim of terrorism is no greater in today’s Sri Lanka than it is in France. They and their country deserve better. Please visit Sri Lanka. You won’t regret it.

ruwanwelisaya-stupa-srilanka-serendipity_holidays_hyderabad_telangana_india_largeBut to return to the topics of this blog. We visited several of said Buddhist World Heritage Sites, including Buddhaghosa’s home of Anuradhapura (whose great stupa is larger than any other ancient building save the Pyramids). We talked about Buddhism with our tour guide there. We passed many Buddhist temples and shrines on the road. I read the Mahāvaṃsa, the old historical chronicle of Buddhism’s arrival in Sri Lanka. And all of it was very far from the Buddhism I profess – even though they and I would all claim to be Theravādins.

This is not the first time I’ve encountered such a distance, of course. Thai Buddhism in practice is likewise focused in very different directions from the Buddhism I know. For most Buddhists as for most Catholics, their tradition is more about lentils than liberation. I’ve known that intellectually for a long time, and once upon a time that wouldn’t have really mattered to me – I would have just said they’re getting the Buddha’s teaching wrong. But since then, I have come to appreciate this everyday Buddhism for its affirmation of goals beyond the removal of suffering, and especially its aesthetic beauty.

Still, there remains a problem here. It struck me that I saw not a single mention or reference to a non-self doctrine in anything I encountered in Sri Lanka, including the Mahāvaṃsa text; a Pudgalavādin would have had no problem with any of it. But even more basic doctrines like the Four Noble Truths or Noble Eightfold Path came up at most in allusion, if at all. The Buddhism of this lived Sri Lankan world is so very different from the suttas and abhidhamma from which we philosophers learn – yet few of us would dare to say that either one is “not really Buddhism”. How should we think about this difference, this wide gap in the tradition?

Many people have asked such questions before. And so it turns out that there are many conceptual bifurcations, dichotomies, available for thinking about two different sides of Buddhism – if not always the same different sides. (Notice none of these are strongly related to the most common way of dividing Buddhism, between Mahāyāna and Theravāda.) The anthropologist Melford Spiro, making sense of Buddhism in Burma, distinguished between kammatic and nibbanic Buddhism: a Buddhism aimed at better karma/kamma for a better life, “improving one’s position on the Wheel” of rebirth, versus a Buddhism aimed at nirvana/nibbana and getting off that wheel entirely. Adopting generally Indian terminology from Franklin Edgerton, Spiro identifies kammatic Buddhism with an “ordinary norm” “intended for the religious majority”, and nibbanic Buddhism with an “extraordinary norm” “confined to a much smaller group, those whose primary concern was with salvation.” (Buddhism and Society 11-12) This language might suggest that kammatic Buddhism would be followed by householders and nibbanic Buddhism by monks, although we will see that even for Spiro things are not so simple.

The hybrid-English adjectives “kammatic” and “nibbanic” are Spiro’s coinages, but related distinctions are found within the tradition – and not only among élite intellectual monks. In Martin Southwold’s ethnographic research on a Sri Lankan village, Sinhalese villagers drew contrasts between the laukika, literally “worldly”, and lokottara or “supraworldly” – the latter being concerned with nirvana, liberation from the world and its sufferings. The role the gods play in village culture is one can transfer one’s good karma to them and be granted worldly benefits – and that is therefore a laukika activity, one which the villagers even feel guilty of: “‘As Buddhists’, they would say, ‘we ought not to do these things. But we are sinful and weak, and so we have to concern ourselves with worldly matters’.” Such a distinction (using the Pali forms lokiya and lokuttara , as opposed to the Sinhala laukika/lokottara) is also found in the classical abhidhamma texts. So such a distinction is hardly the mere imposition of Western anthropologists.

I find the kammatic/nibbanic distinction helpful not only for the historical or sociological study of existing Buddhist tradition, but for constructive Buddhist philosophical or theological thought. I’ll say more about that soon, but first – next time – I want to address a notable objection to it from within the field of Buddhist ethics.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

About Amod Lele

Amod Lele is Lecturer in Philosophy, Educational Technologist in Information Services & Technology, and Visiting Researcher in the Study of Asia at Boston University. He administers the technical side of the Indian Philosophy Blog, as well as running his own cross-cultural philosophy blog, Love of All Wisdom. He holds a PhD with a South Asia focus from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. You can find out more about him than you ever wanted to know at his ePortfolio.

4 thoughts on “Kammatic and nibbanic Buddhism

  1. Hello friend. Thank you for your article. Nibbana, in the old Pali texts, means a dramatic snuffing out, a death of the personality. This happened to Siddhartha. He arose, like the Phoenix, of course. The Dalai Lama has said he doesn’t know what Nirvana (Nibbana) is, or if it exists. Ha. Its very rare today, I know of a few who have had the experience. But, they aren’t Buddhists. You may enjoy the books of the NEW MUSE Series. The first is entitled THE VIKINGS SECRET YOGA, a true book. For the first time in 1000 years, the Viking Lore is finally revealed…as Yoga. Have a great day, with Lessons. Best, Steven A Key.

  2. There is an important difference between Spiro’s dichotomy and the worldly/ otherworldly one… Both kammatic and nibbanic actually aim beyond this life; the second classification shows a this life vs. future lives split. In Tibetan culture, by way, the mundane vs transmundane split often was a split between 2 separate religions–Buddhism (lha-cho, divine religion) as transmundane, and the mi-ch or folk religion as mundane, with its own gods, practices, and so on… I find the split between mundane and transmundane in Buddhism an interesting area…

    • You’re right that traditionally karma does involve future lives, but it doesn’t only involve future lives – karma is said to apply within this life as well. Śāntideva will speak of the benefits of good action iha paratra ca, here and elsewhere. The element of karma in this life is particularly important to me, because I think that’s central to a naturalized eudaimonic conception of karma – the version of karma that I take to be true.

      That’s a reason why I think it’s important that in the Sri Lankan context discussed above, even good karma for better rebirths is itself considered lokiya. You are still aiming at a better rebirth in this world, not for liberation from it.

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